WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence agencies have extracted valuable information about the Islamic State’s leadership structure, financial operations and security measures by analyzing materials seized during a Delta Force commando raid last month that killed a leader of the terrorist group in eastern Syria, according to U.S. officials.
The information harvested from the laptops, cellphones and other materials recovered from the raid on May 16 already has helped the United States identify, locate and carry out an airstrike against another Islamic State leader in eastern Syria, on May 31. U.S. officials expressed confidence that an influential lieutenant, Abu Hamid, was killed in the attack, but the Islamic State, which remains resilient, has not yet confirmed his death.
New insights yielded by the seized trove — four to seven terabytes of data, according to one official — include how the organization’s shadowy leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, operates and tries to avoid being tracked by coalition forces.
Al-Baghdadi meets periodically with regional emirs, or leaders, at his headquarters in Raqqa in eastern Syria. To ensure his safety, specially entrusted drivers pick up each of the emirs and demand that they hand over their cellphones and any other electronic devices to avoid inadvertently disclosing their location through tracking by U.S. intelligence, the officials said.
Wives of the top Islamic State leaders, including al-Baghdadi’s, play a more important role than previously known, passing information to one another, and then to their spouses, in an effort to avoid elude electronic intercepts.
“I’ll just say from that raid we’re learning quite a bit that we did not know before,” a senior State Department official told reporters in a telephone briefing last week. “Every single day the picture becomes clearer of what this organization is, how sophisticated it is, how global it is and how networked it is.”
But countering these successes are trends that emphasize the daunting challenge still facing the allied effort to defeat the organization. With thousands of Islamist militant fighters on the ground in Syria and Iraq seizing new territory faster than the international coalition arrayed against them can push them back, a meeting in Paris by coalition members last Tuesday seemed unlikely to reverse the momentum anytime soon.
The group of 24 ministers did not embrace any major changes and appeared set to continue on its present course, even though over the past few weeks Syria’s government lost control of the strategically important city of Palmyra and the Iraqi government lost control of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh.
And U.S. counterterrorism officials acknowledge that questions remain about how effectively even this trove of materials can be exploited, given the nature of the Islamic State’s secrecy and ability to adapt.
“Daesh remains extremely resilient, ruthless, and capable of taking the initiative,” Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the conference.
The raid on the multistory residence of Abu Sayyaf, described by U.S. officials as the group’s top financial officer, illustrates that U.S. intelligence on Islamic State leaders is improving. At least one informant deep inside the group played a crucial role in helping track Abu Sayyaf, said a senior military official who was briefed on plans for the raid.
Since the raid, senior administration officials and top military officers have dropped only broad hints about the value of the materials that were scooped up in the predawn operation, which was carried out after weeks of surveillance from satellite imagery, drone reconnaissance and electronic eavesdropping, U.S. officials said.
“In the recent raid on Abu Sayyaf, we collected substantial information on Daesh financial operations,” John R. Allen, the retired general who now serves as the diplomatic envoy coordinating the coalition against the Islamic State, told a conference in Qatar on Wednesday. “And we’re gaining a much clearer understanding of Daesh’s organization and business enterprise.”
At the Pentagon on Friday, Lt. Gen. John Hesterman III, the top allied air commander, told reporters by phone from his headquarters in Qatar that “there is a whole bunch of targeting that is opening up here, as we gain and learn more about this enemy.” He did not specifically refer to the raid.
Against this backdrop, five senior U.S. officials provided additional details about the materials recovered from the house of Abu Sayyaf, a nom de guerre for a Tunisian militant whom U.S. authorities have since identified as Fathi ben Awn ben Jildi Murad al-Tunisi. But these officials did so only on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential intelligence assessments.
These officials described details they said would not necessarily provide any advantage to the Islamic State, and might even sow fear in their ranks that the United States and its allies were beginning to crack their shield of secrecy.